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Postcards from a Nuclear-Free Zone, Part 1

David Bradish and I attended Helen Caldicott's book signing last night in Washington, DC at Busboys and Poets (I'm not Zagat, but I liked the place; good food, nice space, decent red wine).

There were a little over 30 people there and the event was co-sponsored by NIRS and the Nuclear-Free Takoma Park Committee.

The event began with an introduction by Linda Gunter of NIRS. She asked for donations for NIRS because they are there to help "you and people around the world" end nuclear power. She said that despite the propaganda their side is winning. She also mentioned that she was proud to be in Nuclear-Free Takoma Park. A lovely woman that I spoke to after the event pointed out to a person on that Committee that they really aren't nuclear free if they have smoke detectors, lighted exit signs and the like. The fellow from the Committee said, "Yes, we aren't unreasonable about it." Well, that's good to know!

In introducing Helen Caldicott, Gunter said that she has committed her life's work to children. Now I find that a much more compelling introduction than the constant referral to her as a Nobel Peace Prize nominee. Does she know that Joseph Stalin was also nominated?

On to Caldicott's presentation. I can't possibly go through everything she said, or everything I disagreed with, so I'll start off with impressions and then try to hit the most important points.

First, Caldicott is a passionate and witty woman and I can see how she has been so effective over the years at rounding up antinuclear groups.

But the amount of hyperbole, misinformation, and questionable sources she uses is shocking. And its scary because it is repeated so often that it becomes urban legend. I'll get to specifics later but I wonder how, as a trained physician, she can ignore the preponderance of evidence from reputable and objective sources (and I'm not even talking NEI or nuclear industry sources because I realize most people won't consider them objective) and instead latch on to fringe analyses and reports that are so often clearly biased.

Caldicott began by saying that when she started writing her new book to update her previous book, Nuclear Madness, she needed help to make sure it was accurate. She praised the staff at NIRS saying that "they know everything" about nuclear and the book is accurate because of their assistance. I would argue with that statement, but not at this time.

She also said that NIRS is responsible for "holding the nuclear power industry at bay" and for that reason everyone needs to give them all the money they can afford.

Next, Caldicott specifically denounced NEI and mentioned this blog. She said that Paul Gunter (Hi Paul!) told her that NEI is "tearing apart" her book, but only used information on NEI's website to counter her claims. Then she said that we were arguing with her on the issue of strontium. I have to think that she hasn't actually read what we've written because 1)she would see that we have used plenty of sources beyond NEI reports and that the data NEI does provide is clearly referenced--often to objective sources like the International Energy Agency and 2)that there are no references to strontium in our review of her recent book. There was a post in 2005 about the latest in the Tooth Fairy study that challenged Joseph Mangano, but Caldicott was only mentioned as another example of an antinuclear activist.

Caldicott then ranted (and I mean ranted) about how the nuclear industry is supported by socialism and that it just lies. She went on and on about "the lies" including a foray into the medical effects of nuclear war and how generals love their weapons...I never really figured out the connection to commercial power, but it doesn't really matter when there is that much emotion, does it?

Then she said that if you want to destroy the US "all you have to do" is meltdown Indian Point which would destroy New York. She said that the 9/11 terrorists had the plant as a target and "she didn't know why" they didn't hit it instead of the World Trade Center. Perhaps because they had objectively studied the design of nuclear power plants and realized that they are heavily fortified and protected and that flying a plane into one wouldn't result in the kind of death and destruction they could get from so many other targets?

I was amazed when she went on to say that the nuclear industry hasn't improved security at all since 9/11. This statement is either a blatant lie or shockingly ignorant. It's a matter of public record that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued new, tighter security requirements since 9/11 and that all power plants have met them. Even antinuclear groups like Public Citizen acknowledge that security has increased even if they don't believe that it is enough. And on that topic, I refer you to this fact sheet. Yes, it is an NEI document, but the evaluations of nuclear power plant security come from independent sources such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the ANSER Institute for Homeland Security, and the Oklahoma City National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism.

Ok, that's all the time I have right now but I'll try to post more later.


Beyonder1 said…
We're glad you enjoyed the evening as much as we did. Very lively and stimulating. However, I can't resist passing on my little pet peeve - particularly since you are scientists or even engineers!
Please, when referring to "data" remember that this is a plural term. Datum = singular.Data = plural. So it's "the data are" or "the data show." (Latin, neuter noun.) You will gain far more respect and credibility from serious scientists if you make this correction.
Also, a Nuclear-Free Zone has actual specifications that to date cover only nuclear weapons (even though there is are such obvious connections between nuclear weapons and nuclear power that I am a little surprised you are unaware of them. Your friends in the Bush administration are VERY aware of them which is one - at least overt - reason why they are making such a big fuss about Iran.) In a Nuclear-Free zone, the city cannot hold contracts with companies that are engaged in the manufacture of nuclear weapons, without first deferring to the committee. They can get exceptions under special circumstances (Motorola police radios I believe was one such). You probably COULD build a nuclear power plant here under the current specs - but Takoma Park would not be a good place to test this! Then again...
Anonymous said…
beyonder1 -
I suggest you update your views on data/datum. As English continues to progress, it has become generally recognized that "data" is most commonly used in English as a collective singular noun and that "datum" is becoming archaic except for the "datum point" usage. As a result the form "The data is..." is now commonly accepted. This is not unique among Latin based words since (I'm going from ancient memory here) Latin doesn't really have a collective noun form.

I've noticed this change over the years and think it significantly improves the readability of the language. A quick on line check confirms that sources like the Oxford Dictionary and Dr. Grammar also note this change in usage.
Anonymous said…
Nice job beyonder1, exposing the Bush, Halliburton conspiracy to deny the well-known link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons.

Seriously beyonder1 if the US government is so passionate about Iran not getting atomic weapons why have they supported diplomatic solutions that would actively help Iran build and operate light water NPPs. Just maybe the link between weapons and power is not as black and white as you seem to think.
Brian Mays said…

Perhaps Lisa simply neglected to give her post a final sufficient proofreading. It happens to the best of us (or did you mean to say "even though there is are such obvious connections between nuclear weapons and nuclear power" -- I assume that "is are" is not a special grammatical form derived from the latin, which my public-school education neglected to inform me about).

Anonymous said…
Are we going to argue about facts or grammar people?
JS_VP said…
In the past, not having been there in the 1960's when Caldicott was "hot", I had only known the aged doctor by occasional reference, and had never read anything written by her. A month ago, when her current PR blitz cranked up flogging her book tour, I dug in and researched a bit.

What did I find?

I have to tell those of you who seriously oppose things nuclear, that supporting such a ludicrous "Dr. Irwin Corey"-type clown, is seriously debilitating for the credibility of your cause. The inevitable decay, in a movement long past its halcyon days is made embarrassingly clear, by the scattershot, geriatric self indulgence of a drugged-up, speeded-up self deluding myth-fabricator obviously way in over her head, in talking to today's rather aware audiences.
(Nota bene-- I do not accuse the nervous ex-physician of taking pharmaceuticals, the attitude-skewing endorphins may well be part of a physical pathology, coupled to the aging process, and/or exhaustion).

You may not have noticed what I have,
that in Dr. Caldicott,
supposed issue dissemination
has degraded into pure entertainment.


You cannot possibly win,
indulging in AGIT-TAINMENT.

The fact that agit-tainment is enough for the principles in Caldicott's allied organizations, proves beyond a doubt that the so-called "Anti Nuke movement" is now reduced to a niche status, self-marginalized by its own hyperbole, wishful thinking, and the need to communally reinforce its own.

Public sensibility has moved beyond the stage where agit-comedy is viable, except as internal cult-strokes among the faithful. People need, and demand, satisfaction of their energy/lifestyle needs, and grow increasingly annoyed at nay-sayer self indulgence--- or had you not noticed?
Perhaps you should get out more.

Also.... the obvious stalking of Mr. Mc Erlain, by you "grammar-hounds"-- without anything of substance to bring to the board, tells me that those favoring a non-nuke view are now reduced to nit picking, while their heros
(and heroines) stand reduced to ludicrous blubbering, and stand-up agit-comedy, for the sole purpose of book-hawking.

Please troubleshoot
my spelling & grammar for me,
and have a nice day

Harry, the Riverdog
GingerMary said…
I am a firm believer in that it is not how you convey something but the substance that matters. And why would a nuclear engineer or scientist have a degree in English? Help the world if they concentrate more on grammar than science…But as always we all have our little issues and things. How about concentrating on the more important stuff and stop being petty? Perhaps the pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear industries are (or could it be is ;)too concerned with ego and proving who is wrong or right. Perhaps there is truth that the nuclear sights could have been hit by terrorists. Why else would they have concerns about it after 9/11 and increase the security. So perhaps there somewhere, in the middle, is the truth. It normally always is (are?;-) Whether you talk about Grammar or nuclear the age old rules apply. Sometimes we get tired of those egos and pettiness. Perhaps its time to forever ignore them and just go on with you lives /bloggs? Ipso facto!
Lisa Stiles said…
Thank you, gingermary. I is an engineer ;)

I agree with you that a nuclear power plant can be hit by terrorists. But even before the security improvements after 9/11, I believe that terrorists would not have been able to cause a meltdown or catastrophic damage that would impact public health. Security has ALWAYS been very tight at nuclear plants. Even when I was a badged employee at a plant I could not access the control room or other vital areas without special task-specfic clearance.

What I'm about to say about security is purely my opinion and speculation not endorsed by NEI or any other nuclear company.

I'm not an expert and I don't have access to safeguards information but I think the major change in security for the nuclear industry and other critical infrastructure was the notion that people would be willing to commit suicide in an attack. Everyone had to change their assumptions. Again, I think the most vital areas were already very well-protectd, but nuclear companies realized that a suicidal terrorist could cause significantly more damage to other parts of the plant and to the workers there than a non-suicidal terrorist.

Destroying the secondary, or steam, side of a PWR could hurt a lot of workers and be an economic disaster for the company, but it would not impact public health. So the industry willingly took steps (even before the NRC mandated them) to make the security for those areas much more similar to the security already protecting vital areas. Of course, if you are improving the protection of your workers and secondary equipment you are automatically improving the protection of the core and the public.

Anonymous said…
RE: the 9-11 attacks and Indian Point -- Caldicott said "she didn't know why" they didn't hit it instead of the World Trade Center. Perhaps because they had objectively studied the design of nuclear power plants and realized that they are heavily fortified and protected and that flying a plane into one wouldn't result in the kind of death and destruction they could get from so many other targets?"

There is not a scintilla of evidence to support the blatant assertion that the 9-11 terrorists were deterred from attacking NPPs by their assessment that they were too hard targets. In fact, Khalid Sheik Muhammed had recommended NPP targets for these attacks, but bin Laden's deputy nixed the suggestion because they feared a disproportionate military response by the US.

Of course, that was before they took the towers down and killed 3,000 people, and got a "fatwah" which said they could kill up to 10 million Americans. It's a different world now.

Don't excoriate Caldicott for unsubstantiated assertions if you're going to posit them in your refutation of her.
Brian Mays said…
"Anonymous Coward" wrote ...

"There is not a scintilla of evidence to support the blatant assertion that the 9-11 terrorists were deterred from attacking NPPs by their assessment that they were too hard targets."

True, but let's not assume that Arab terrorists are as stupid as the stereotypes that Hollywood movies make them out to be. It's all speculation, but the truth is that they did not attack Indian Point or any other nuclear facility.

Hmm ... why could that be? Putting myself in their shoes, I would postulate the following debate: Let's hit something with a plane. Well, we could hit a large building made of glass and steel, or we could try to hit a small building made of tons and tons of reinforced concrete, full of heavy steel components.

Well ... I don't think it takes a genius to figure that one out. Even the Hollywood stereotypes could puzzle it together.

Sorry, but I call common sense on this one.

"... In fact, Khalid Sheik Muhammed had recommended NPP targets for these attacks, but bin Laden's deputy nixed the suggestion because they feared a disproportionate military response by the US."

A disproportionate military response? Such as invading Afghanistan and taking out the government of Iraq? Ha ha ha ha ... Thank you. You have just given me the best laugh that I've had in a long while.

"Don't excoriate Caldicott for unsubstantiated assertions if you're going to posit them in your refutation of her."

Thank you for your advice, but I think that I'll ignore it -- at least with respect to terrorism. This whole terrorism thing is such a hodge-podge of misinformation and propaganda that nobody knows what is certain and what is not. Caldicott and her like enjoy milking this uncertainty for all it's worth, to ensure major Algore Factor.

I'll admit that my speculations here regarding the intentions of terrorists are just that -- speculation. Your comments, however, don't even pass the laughability test. Let's just call it a day and admit that we don't know what the terrorists wanted to do nor do we know for certain what they want to do in the future.

The only thing that I know for certain is that, relatively speaking, the nuclear plants in the US are some of the hardest targets out there, and I'm not worried.
Lisa Stiles said…
If it wasn't obvious from my use of the word "perhaps" and my phrasing the sentence as a question, I apologize for not making it clear that I was suggesting a possible reason that the 9/11 terrorists did not hit Indian Point. I certainly was not offering it as fact.

It is still my opinion, however, that if terrorists could cause as much death and destruction as Caldicott claims by attacking a nuclear power plant, they would have tried it by now.


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